In the first of our series of peer-to-peer artists' interviews as part of DAO's Viewfinder project, Anne Teahan spoke to Deborah Caulfield, discovering an artist, writer and disability activist who confounds all the usual definitions.
Many artists strain to explain their work in terms which baffle. Instead of an elaborate artist’s statement about her ‘practice’ Deborah says: ‘I'm an inconsistent artist, hugely distracted by life. I create in a variety of media including words, pictures, food and laundry.’
This is not an ‘anti-art’ posture. Deborah has published a sparkling array of images, poetry and incisive blogs and reviews on DAO.
Eclectic in form, style and content her work ranges from fluent and fast observational drawings capturing joyful moments, to digital collages with a political edge. There are also haunting images of childhood memories of institutional life.
Deborah maintains freshness as an artist whilst resisting the pressure to categorise or explain in contemporary art terms. Despite a life of campaigning for disability rights, she does not make ‘Disability Art’ and emphatically rejects the term ‘Outsider Art’.
Deborah’s childhood may offer some clues. As a result of TB spinal injury, she was in and out of hospitals and institutional schools (including Chailey Heritage Hospital also attended by Ian Dury) from age 6 months to 16 years.
This was at a time when children were not encouraged to express or assert themselves; they were certainly not praised for courage, endurance or talent.
AT: How would you describe what you do in Art?
DC: I’d describe it as extremely bitty, inconsistent in all aspects: in the amount that I do – certainly the quality of it – and my commitment to it. I feel all over the place really in terms of what I do , how I do it, why I do it – what the hell I’m doing it for, and what am I going to do with all this stuff?
AT: But you still persist...
DC: I do appear to… I can’t seem to give it up.
AT: Well if you’re still doing it, it’s a real activity.
DC: Well as Gombrich said, and I take comfort from it, ‘There’s no such thing as Art only artists’. And I think I’m probably an artist, but whether I do any art is another question.
AT: In that case, what do you mean by an artist?
DC: I mean somebody who consistently and persistently scribbles and draws and writes – and can’t stop.
AT: So you’ve got a strong urge to make and to express yourself. Have you had this all your life? Did you have it in childhood?
DC: I think I did – Yes, I’m pretty sure. I can’t ever remember...when I was really small at primary school age, in those days in the 50s, Drawing was what we did. I particularly remember Nature Study. I used to draw birds and flowers. I think I just liked it. I don’t remember thinking that it was any great thing. Or it was any good. I certainly don’t remember any praise.
It was just a really matter-of-fact thing to do. If you were learning or writing about something you drew a picture to go with it. So it was no great shakes. And I did like writing. I liked writing stories. Nothing was ever of any importance. I was not very important. And so it followed that nothing I did was very important.
AT: What do you mean when you say ‘I was not very important’ – is this how adults treated you or how you were made to feel?
DC: It was communicated to me on a regular basis. Going by the response and the comments that I remember and got written about me was that I thought about myself far too much. That’s how I felt. I was constantly being reminded in different ways, by being shut up, by being told, ‘All you ever think about is yourself’ and just by being ignored.
AT: Who was this? Is this teaching or parents...
DC: Yes it was all of them. I was ill as a child. I was in hospital a lot... and then went to special schools. I spent a lot of time just in bed.
AT: Can you tell me about that. Was that relevant to art?
DC: It must be relevant because it’s made me who I am. But for the life of me I can’t see what it’s got to do with art. But then I can’t see what anything’s got to do with that. I do make pictures about it from time to time. But it’s hard.
AT: Is it pictures about institutional life?
DC: There’s a bit of that yes and I write about it as well from time to time. There’s certain aspects of it that suddenly trouble me – something suddenly kicks it off.
AT: When you say ‘Something suddenly kicks it off’ can you give me an example of what the trigger might be?
DC: This can be a news item, a tv or radio programme, an article. ..anything; a chance glance at an old photograph or a memory. Sometimes a picture happens seemingly from nowhere. Other times it’s because I can't get the words out and only a picture will do.
How does one express emotional and psychological pain and avoid cliché and sentimentality? Most of all, I ask myself, who wants to know? I did a series of pictures about being visited in hospital. A little bit about the institutionalisation. I have not even scratched the surface – not really.
AT: Some artists would find it hard to resist scratching below the surface. Is this something you want to explore further? I wonder if there’s a desire to back off, or to take it very slowly. Can you tell me more about this?
DC: I'm not sure I want to explore it further. But I'm equally unsure that I don't want to. The main thing is to do work that's good, in its own right. It isn't art therapy, not that I've ever experienced 'art therapy'.
And yes, I'm all for slowly-slowly and not rushing into anything, but I'm 66, time passes, one isn't getting any younger, and other clichés. So if I'm going to do more than scratch the surface, I'd better get on with it. I just need a good reason, I suppose. Maybe that's the problem...
AT: Is there a separation between expressing memories and Art for pleasure?
DC: Absolutely. Oh yes. For me Art is just about drawing and looking and enjoying the business of it – liking pictures for their own sake. I don’t mind if they say anything important. If it’s a good picture then it does.
And shape and colour and form and space and light. Those are the things that I like.
AT: So it’s the language of Art which comes first. So you wouldn’t call your art ‘Disability Art’?
DC: It’s the Art and the Craft. For me, Disability is ‘oh yes there’s ‘That’ to bother about.’ For me it’s a bit of an imposition in a way.
Maybe this is why I always react negatively to this kind of question. Because I don’t really want that responsibility...and yet Disability is such a big part of me. It’s going to creep in.
AT: Do you feel it spoils the pleasure of the art, that it’s got to be worthy and doing good – or campaigning...does it put a strain on the pleasure?
DC: Yes – that’s probably how I feel about art generally. I come from a very working-class background. A very strict work, work work. Achieve, achieve. Get things done. Earn you space. Earn your keep. Justify your existence.
So in a way to sit down and draw – it doesn’t get any more self indulgent than that.
And I’ve gone back to that recently. I’ve just bought a book on Mindfulness and Drawing and I thought ‘I’m just going to do that. I’m just going to bloody doodle’. I’m going to call it a doodle. I don’t have to care about it and I’m going to spend hours and hours at that and see how it feels. Not for any purpose at all.
AT: When you say your Art is unpredictable...you don’t know why etc...is it a kind of anger at the people in your childhood who undervalued personal indulgence, personal pleasure or called it ‘Selfish’? Do you think you’re still doing that in a way by refusing to follow a definition of what Art is? Is it a resistance to all that...
DC: It could be. It wouldn’t surprise me. But also I’ve lived like that: there’s work, earning a living, bringing up the kids, keeping the house clean – all of that – and then there’s Art.
AT: What are your plans?
DC: I don’t have any plans.
AT: Well that’s consistent.